Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Authorities Missed The Swine Flu Boat

The number of confirmed cases of Swine Flu in Australia is now more than 50. Yesterday morning it was 22. One of the biggest contributing reasons for this has been the arrival of the Pacific Dawn in Sydney on Monday. Despite some passengers showing symptoms, authorities apparently assumed it was seasonal flu and not the dreaded H1N1. 2000 passengers were allowed to disembark the ship, and disperse around Australia, some of them travelling interstate on commercial airliners. The result is 14 confirmed cases among the passengers, and exposure to hundreds or even thousands more people in shops cafes cinemas and airplanes before the call went out to urge the 2000 to quarantine themselves in their homes.

The vessel itself was cleaned, any staff showing any signs of illness were relieved of duty, and a fresh batch of passengers was taken on board. The ship then sailed on Monday night, heading to Queensland. Today it has been reported that there are three more suspected cases on board and Queensland authorities have turned it away from the holiday islands of the Whitsundays and diverted it to Willis Island near Cairns. It appears that the genie is well and truly out of the bottle, and questions are now being asked about the actions of New South Wales health officials and the operators of the cruise vessel.

There are of course no 100% guarantees, but Australia does have a well planned pandemic response protocol and it is supposed to be in place to prevent the spread of disease as effectively as possible. The official threat level has been set at “contain”, and we have been told that both the state and federal authorities have the power to detain travelers, and the vessels in which they travel, in order to safeguard public health. If that is so, the question is why was that power not used to hold the Pacific Dawn and its passengers at least long enough for the test results to delivered? Another vessel had been detained for several hours on the weekend before its passengers were released, so why not the Pacific Dawn?

That answer appears to be that an assumption was made that because the vessel had not visited ports known to be infected with H1N1 it was safe to conclude that those who showed symptoms had nothing more serious than the seasonal flu. If that is the case, then there’s really not much point in having a pandemic plan at all. If we learned anything from the equine influenza disaster at all it should have been that a moment of carelessness is all it takes to bring everything undone. On that basis, there is no room for anyone to make any assumptions, least of all people who should normally be guided by rational scientific processes.

We have been led to believe that we can rely on sensible responsible precautions to prevent the spread of swine flu becoming a serious problem. Perhaps it could, but for it to have any chance of success there must be strict adherence to proper quarantine procedures. It’s still not too late to keep the damage to a minimum, but perhaps it would have been easier to hold the Pacific Dawn for a few hours to be on the safe side. After all, weren’t we all brought up to believe that we would be better safe than sorry?

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